Category Archives: Federal Government

GOP Tax Reform: Say Goodbye to the Middle Class

As a student of American Social history, I am acutely aware that for much of the 241 years of the Republic, the majority of the American people were not what we today would call “Middle Class.”

In fact, they were cash poor, dirt farmers, tradesmen, owning very little except what they could carry on a horse, mule, or in a wagon as they migrated west in search of better opportunities.

Until the New Deal, the Middle Class as we know it did not exist in such great numbers. True, there was a middle class in the cities and towns of the East Coast and Midwest, but most of them were descendants of immigrants from the 17th and 18th centuries, and rose steadily into the middle class as the nation’s economy shifted from a mercantile to an industrial economy in the first half of the 19th century.

Consider the following quotes from three US presidents regarding the power of money and corporations. You will notice that none of them are wild-eyed radicals in the least.

“I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

Thomas Jefferson

“Mischief springs from the power which the moneyed interest derives from a paper currency which they are able to control, from the multitude of corporations with exclusive privileges… which are employed altogether for their benefit.”

Andrew Jackson

“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong it’s reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”

Abraham Lincoln

So it is no surprise that the Republican Party is ramming down the throats of the American middle class, a tax reform bill that will effectively wipe out the remaining members of the middle class, and redistribute the wealth to those making over $75,000 and those at the very top, the oft-mentioned 1%.

My fellow blogger, and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for County Legislator in upstate New York, Joe Paduda, wrote a very potent analysis of the GOP tax scam legislation. Yes, I did call it a scam, but that is not my word. Others have used it in the past few days in an effort to derail and stop it from passing.

Besides destroying the middle class, it will as Joe points out, bankrupt the health care system. Then we will have to go all the way to a single-payer system just to get the whole thing working again.

Here is Joe’s piece in its entirety:

The tax bill’s impact on healthcare or; If you like your cancer care, you can’t keep it.

        

The GOP “tax reform” bill will directly and significantly affect healthcare. Here’s how.

It removes the individual mandate, but still requires insurers to cover anyone who applies for insurance. So, millions will drop coverage knowing they can sign up if they get sick.

How does that make any sense?

Here’s the high-level impact of the “tax bill that is really a healthcare bill”:

The net – healthcare providers are going to get hammered, and they’re going to look to insured patients to cover their costs.

The real net – The folks most hurt by this are those in deep-red areas where there is little choice in healthcare plans, lots of struggling rural hospitals, and no other safety net.  Alaskans, Nebraskans, Iowans, Wyoming residents are among those who are going to lose access to healthcare – and lose health care providers.

Here are the details.

According to the Commonwealth Fund, “repeal would save the federal government $338 billion between 2018 and 2027, resulting from lower federal costs for premium tax credits and Medicaid. By 2027, 13 million fewer people will have health insurance, either because they decide against buying coverage or can no longer afford it.”

Most of those who drop coverage will be healthier than average, forcing insurers in the individual market to raise prices to cover care for a sicker population. This is how “death spirals” start, an event we’ve seen dozens of times in state markets, and one that is inevitable without a mandate and subsidies.

For example, older Americans would see higher increases than younger folks. Here’s how much your premiums would increase if you are in the individual marketplace.

So, what’s the impact on you?

Those 13 million who drop insurance, which include older, poorer, sicker people, will need coverage – and they’ll get it from at most expensive and least effective place – your local ER. Which you will pay for in part due to cost-shifting.

ACA provided a huge increase in funding for emergency care services – folks who didn’t have coverage before were able to get insurance from Medicaid or private insurers, insurance that paid for their emergency care.

From The Hill:

[after ACA passage] there were 41 percent fewer uninsured drug overdoses, 25 percent fewer uninsured heart attacks, and over 32 percent fewer uninsured appendectomies in 2015 compared to 2013. The total percent reduction in inpatient uninsured hospitalizations across all conditions was 28 percent lower in 2015 than in 2013. Between 2013 and 2015, Arizona saw a 25 percent reduction in state uninsured hospitalizations, Nevada a 75 percent reduction, Tennessee a 17 percent drop, and West Virginia an 86 percent decline.

If the GOP “tax bill” passes, hospital and health system charges to insureds (yes, you work comp payer) are going to increase – and/or those hospitals and health systems will go bankrupt.

What does this mean?

It means we of the middle class had a very good run, but the ruling class has spoken, and they want us to disappear, or at least shrink to the point that we become unimportant to their pursuit of greater wealth. Why else would the donor class of the Republican Party, the Koch Brothers, the Mercer family, Sheldon Adelson, and the rest of their donors threaten members of Congress with no more funds for their re-election if they fail to pass this bill?

There is a word for that, it’s called Extortion. And we are the sacrificial lambs.

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Illogical!

Picking up where I left off last week with my post, Regulation Strangulation, regarding too much regulation, a series of articles from earlier this week, published in various health care journals and magazines, discussed a new scheme the good folks at CMS have cooked up to make our health care “system” better. (Or worse, depending on whether you have drunk the kool-aid yet)

You may recall my post from late last year, Models, Models, Have We Got Models!, that reported that CMS was launching three new policies to continue the push toward value-based care, rewarding hospitals that work with physicians and other providers to avoid complications, prevent readmissions and speed recovery.

In that article, I mentioned the various models CMS was implementing. My view then, as it remains today, is that these models have not worked, and have only made matters worse, not better.

So when CMS unveiled their latest scheme recently when Administrator Seema Verma spoke at the Health Care Payment Learning and Action Network (LAN) Fall Summit, this is what she said:

The LAN offers a unique and important opportunity for payors, providers, and other stakeholders to work with CMS , in partnership, to develop innovative approaches to improving our health care system. Since 2015, the LAN has focused on working to shift away from a fee-for-service system that rewards volume instead of quality…We all agree that quality measures are a critical component of paying for value. But we also understand that there is a financial cost as well as an opportunity cost to reporting measures…That’s why we’re revising current quality measures across all programs to ensure that measure sets are streamlined, outcomes-based, and meaningful to doctors and patients…And, we’re announcing today our new comprehensive initiative, “Meaningful Measures.”

Let’s dissect her comments so we can understand just how complicated this so-called system has become.

  1. Develop innovative approaches? How’s that working for you?
  2. Improving our health care system? Really? What planet are you living on?
  3. Financial cost? Yeah, for those who can afford it.
  4. Revising current quality measures? Haven’t you done that already after all these years?
  5. “Meaningful Measures”. Now there’s a catchy phrase if I ever heard one. You mean they weren’t meaningful before?

You have to wonder what they are doing in Washington if this is the level of insanity and inanity coming out of the bureaucracy on top of our health care system.

In an article in Health Data Management, Jeff Smith, vice president of public policy for the American Medical Informatics Association stated the following regarding the new CMS initiative.

According to Smith, “the goals are laudable, but the talking points have been with us for several years’ now…measurement depends on agreed-upon definitions of quality, and in an electronic environment, it requires access to and use of computable data. If CMS is going to turn these talking points into reality, it will need to put forth far more resources and commit additional experts to a complete overhaul of electronic quality measures for value-based payments.”

Mr. Smith’s comments are at least an indication that not everyone goes along with CMS every time they unveil some new initiative, model, or program, but again we see the words associated with the consuming of health care being used in discussing the current state of affairs. Terms like “value-based payments”, and “quality measures”, and “financial/opportunity cost”, etc., only obscure the real problem with our health care system. It is a profit-driven system and not a patient-driven system.

Let’s push on.

A report mentioned Monday in Markets Insider showed that 29% of total US health care payments were tied to alternative payment models (APMs) in 2016, compared to 23% in 2015, an increase of six percentage points. These APMs were discussed previously in Models, Models, Have We Got Models!,

The report was issued by the LAN, and is the second year of the LAN APM Measurement Effort (try saying that three times fast). They captured actual health care spending in 2016 from four data sources, the LAN, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA), and CMS across all segments, and categorized them to four categories of the original LAN APM Framework. (Boy, you must be tired trying to remember all these acronyms and titles!)

Here are their results:

  • 43% of health care dollars in Category 1 (traditional FFS or other legacy payments)
  • 28 % of health care dollars in Category 2 (pay-for-performance or care coordination fees)
  • 29% of health care dollars in a composite of Categories 3 and 4 (shared savings, shared risk, bundled payments, or population-based)

Speaking of shared savings, an article in Modern Healthcare reported that CMS’ Medicare shared savings program paid out more in bonuses to ACO’s than the savings those participants generated.

As per the report, about 56% of the 432 Medicare ACOs generated a total of $652 million in savings in 2016. CMS paid $691 million in bonuses to ACOs, resulting in a loss of $39 million from the program.

Chief Research Officer at Leavitt Partners, David Muhlestein said, “Medicare isn’t saving money.”

This is attributed to the fact that 95% of the Medicare ACOs (410) participated in Track 1 of the Medicare Shared Savings Program. Only 22% participated in tracks 2 and 3.

Two more articles go on to discuss a Medicare bundled-pay initiative and the Medicare Merit-based Payment System (MIPS) .

What does this all mean?

It has been long apparent to this observer that the American health care system is a failure through and through. Sure, there are great strides being made daily in new technology and therapies. A member of my family just benefited from one such innovation in cardiac care. But luckily, they have insurance from Medicare and a secondary payor.

But many do not, and not many can afford the second level of insurance. From my studies and my writing, I have seen a system that is totally out of whack due to the commercialization and commodification of health care services.

And knowing a little of other Western nations’ health care systems, I find it hard to believe that they are like this as well. We must change this and change this now.

If Medicare is losing money now, with the limited pool of beneficiaries, perhaps a larger pool, with little or no over-regulation and so many initiatives, models, and programs, can do a better job. Because what has been tried before isn’t working, and is getting worse.

The logical thing to do is to make a clean break with the past. Medicare for All, or something like it.

 

 

CMS Proposes to Allow States to Define Health Benefits

A connection of mine today posted a link to a CMS Fact Sheet in which they propose to allow states to define essential health benefits beginning January 1, 2019.

According to the fact sheet, this rule is intended to increase flexibility in the individual market, improve program integrity, and reduce regulatory burdens associated with the PPACA in the individual and small group markets. (See my post, “Regulation Strangulation“)

The rule also includes proposals that would provide states with more options in how the essential health benefits (EHBs) are defined for their state, it would also enhance the role of states related to qualified health plan (QHP) certification, and to provide states with additional flexibility in the operation and establishment of Exchanges, particularly the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) Exchanges.

Finally, they propose to permit states to reduce the magnitude of risk adjustment transfers in the small group market to minimize unnecessary burden, and proposes other changes that would streamline the Exchange consumer experience and the individual and small group markets.

What does this really mean?

Anytime the federal government attempts to allow the individual states to determine or define certain social benefits, we end up with a hodgepodge of rules, regulations, costs of impairment, etc.

We know that in certain states, the loss of a body part in one state has an impairment value different from the same body part in another state, according to the ProPublica report .

So when I see that CMS wants to allow states to define what essential health benefits are,  we have to ask ourselves, what do they mean by essential, and is one state’s essential health benefits, another state’s burden?

I understand that certain states, particularly so-called “Red” states with conservative governors and legislatures, will be free to decide that certain treatments and procedures are just too expensive for them to cover, or that they violate the ethical or moral sentiments of the community in the state, i.e., abortion, birth control, sexual reassignment surgery, etc.

Allowing states to define and decide what is essential and what is not, may be harmful to the health of many of their citizens, even if it saves the state money.

And I am rather leery of CMS’s desire to “strengthen” the individual or small group markets, because who decides what constitutes strengthening, and who makes those decisions and under what circumstances.

Rather than allowing legislators and governors to decide what medical care their citizens can receive in their state, rather than trying to shore up a market, whether it is the individual market or the group market, we should move to provide all Americans with the same health care and the same medical benefits, coast to coast, under a Medicare for All plan.

Anything less would be worse than what we have now, and would be more costly and more complex and confusing. This rule should be scraped.

Regulation Strangulation

The American Hospital Association (AHA) released a report that stated that there is too much regulation that is impacting patient care.

The report, Regulatory Overload Assessing the Regulatory Burden on Health Systems, Hospitals, and Post-acute Care Providers, concludes with the following assessment:

Health systems, hospitals and PAC providers are besieged by federal regulatory requirements promulgated by CMS, OIG, OCR and ONC, many of which are duplicative and cumbersome and do not improve patient care. In addition to the regulatory burden put forth by those agencies, health systems, hospitals and PAC providers are subject to regulation by additional federal agencies, such as the Department of Labor, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and Drug Administration and by state licensing and regulatory agencies. They also operate under stringent contract requirements imposed by payers, such as Medicare Advantage, Medicaid Managed Care plans and commercial payers, which also require reporting data in different ways through different systems. States and payers contribute to burden through, for example, documentation, quality reporting and billing procedures layered on top of the federal requirements.
Regulatory reform aimed at reducing administrative burden must not approach the regulatory environment in a vacuum — evaluating the impact of a single regulation or requirements of a single program — but instead must look at the larger picture of the regulatory framework and identify where requirements can be streamlined or eliminated to release resources to be allocated to patient care.
In a previous post, Models, Models, Have We Got Models!, I said that from the beginning of my foray into the health administration world, I noticed that there were too many models, programs, and schemes dedicated to lowering costs and improving quality of care, that only raised the cost of health care and did not improve quality of care.
This is what I said then about all the models, programs, and rules promulgated by CMS over decades that have not made things better:
The answer was simple. Too many models, programs, rules, and so on that only gum up the works and make real reform not only impossible, but even more remote a possibility as more of these inane models are added to what is already a broken system.
So it seems that I was right even then, and now the AHA has proved it so. Why not scrap these models, programs, and rules and institute real reform…Medicare for All and be done with it?

Fallout of the End of ACA Subsidies

Joe Paduda today gave a very succinct and clear-minded assessment of the fallout of the ending of the ACA subsidies, also known as Cost-Sharing Reimbursement (CSR) payments.

Here is Joe’s article.

It makes perfect sense that what the Orange man said yesterday will do more damage to health care than his false and misleading pronouncements of the past year that the ACA is failing and doing harm.

It is you, sir, who are doing harm. To the poor, to minorities like those in Puerto Rico despite your morning mea culpa, to African-Americans and Latinos,  to women, to international agreements and organizations,  and to our credibility with our allies and adversaries.

 

ACA Subsidies to End

Here is the New York Times article tonight which will appear in tomorrow’s paper.

The Orangutan is blowing up the health care law, and with it, the health care system.

Cutting off subsidies to cover low-income individuals and signing an Executive Order that will create chaos and uncertainty is dangerous, reckless, and despicable.

Not even Gru is that mean-spirited and inhumane.

The Roman Senator Cato the Elder ended his speeches by declaring that “Carthago delenda est”. which means Carthage must be destroyed.

We need a modern Senator to declare that “Trump sit remotus”, means Trump must be removed.

Follow-up to Insurers Jacking Up Premiums Ahead of End of CSR’s

Health Affairs blog posted the following stating that if the Administration terminates cost-sharing reduction payments (CSR’s), the states can use 1332 waivers to fund their own.

Here is the article in full by Steven Chen:

One of the main causes of instability in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) health exchanges, aside from the constant stream of repeal-and-replace efforts, is the uncertainty over the future of the cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments. CSR and the advanced premium tax credits (APTC) are subsidies created by the ACA to enhance the affordability of the qualified health plans sold on the health exchanges. Whereas the APTC reduces the cost of premiums to beneficiaries with incomes between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level, CSR lowers the out-of-pocket expenses of beneficiaries with incomes between 100 and 250 percent of the federal poverty level.

Unlike the APTC, whose legal status is not in question, the U.S. House of Representatives had challenged the appropriation status of the CSR payments by filing a lawsuit against the Obama administration, thereby creating doubts about CSR’s future. In addition to the said litigation, the current administration has compounded the uncertainty by often withholding the CSR payments until the 11th hour and threatening to terminate the payments completely.

This uncertainty comes at a cost. Some insurers have cited the uncertainty as one of the reasons for their exodus from the health exchanges while others have referenced the uncertainty as a source for their 2018 premium hikes. While the extent of the premium increase is yet to be determined, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that without CSR payments, the insurers would need to raise silver plan premiums by about 19 percent.

Can States Step In?

What can States do if the administration follows through on its threat to terminate the CSR payments? A simple solution is for the States to provide the CSR payments themselves. In addition to making health insurance affordable, CSR payments are cost effective: The provision of CSR payments by the Federal government lowers the silver plan premiums offered on the health exchanges because the insurers are compensated for the reduced cost-sharing they are required to provide. Without the CSR payments, insurers will raise silver plan premiums—including the premiums for the benchmark silver plans—to offset their losses, which leads to higher APTC for all eligible beneficiaries, ultimately resulting in greater overall Federal expenditure. The aforementioned Kaiser Family Foundation study quantified this effect by demonstrating that if CSR payments were terminated in 2018, although the Federal government would save $10 billion from not making the CSR payments, it would have to pay an additional $12.3 billion in APTC, thus increasing overall Federal expenditure by $2.3 billion.

Creating a State-administered CSR mechanism will undoubtedly require expenditure from the State. While some will argue that the limited resources available in State budgets would render the idea all but theoretical, it would be beneficial to examine how States can use Section 1332 of the ACA to fund—and potentially profit from—providing CSR.

The California Example

The intricacies of a Section 1332 State Innovation Waiver (1332 Waiver) have been explained in depth elsewhere, but on a fundamental level, Section 1332 of the ACA permits a State to apply for a waiver to modify or waive certain provisions of the ACA, such as the individual mandate and the establishment of health exchanges, among others. The waiver application must satisfy four statutory constraints—comprehensiveness, affordability, scope of coverage, and will not increase the Federal deficit—but should an application meet all the criteria, the State is eligible to receive any APTC or CSR that the State would have otherwise received without the 1332 Waiver. In layman terms, if a State can create a system that meets the Federal standard at a cost that is the same or less than the existing Federal model, the State gets to keep the money the Federal government would have otherwise spent.

Using California as an example, Covered California showed that the termination of CSR payments by the Federal government would cause insurance premiums for silver plans in the individual market to increase by 16.6 percent in 2018. The study also showed an inverse relationship between CSR and APTC: The Federal government paid $750 million in CSR payments in 2016, but if it were to defund CSR payments, not only would it not receive any savings, it would incur an additional $976 million in APTC spending. Using these figures as illustration, if the Federal government had terminated CSR payments in 2016 and if California had provided CSR payments through a 1332 Waiver, under this scenario California would have to pay $750 million in CSR payments, but it would receive $976 million from the Federal government in lost APTC payments—payments California would have otherwise received without waiver—ending up with a total net profit of $226 million! California could use the profit to create a reinsurance program to bolster its health exchange, to increase payments to providers, or it could spend the excess on non-health related projects like fixing potholes and infrastructure because there is no restriction on the usage of the excess pass-through funding.

Even without a lengthy legal analysis, it is obvious this waiver satisfies all the statutory constraints: (1) since the waiver does not modify the Essential Health Benefits or any coverage requirements, it meets the comprehensiveness test; (2) since the waiver would lower premiums and out-of-pocket costs, it would actually improve affordability; (3) since the waiver would improve affordability, it is expected to increase scope of coverage; and finally (4) the numbers show that the waiver will not increase the Federal deficit. In fact, it should be intuitive why this proposal would meet the requirements of the ACA — it was built to be part of the ACA to begin with.

While the Administration isn’t obligated to approve any waiver applications, a 1332 Waiver application that creates a State-operated CSR payment mechanism—and uses the excess pass-through funding to finance a State reinsurance program—is conceptually consistent with the Administration’s emphasis on enhanced State flexibility and empowerment. The first executive order by the Administration, for example, promised to provide greater flexibility to the States under the ACA. Moreover, the Secretary of Health and Human Services recently sent a letter to State governors encouraging the application of 1332 Waivers and even provided a checklist to help expedite the process.

Given the cost-saving advantages of CSR payments, it is puzzling that the Federal government would consider terminating this effective subsidy. In addition to the money the Federal government would save, forcing States to spend the time and expense to develop and administer separate CSR operations also argue against ending Federal CSR payments. Indeed, even Republican members of Congress have begun to warm to the idea of continuing CSR payments. However, should the Federal government decide against it, States have a viable, and potentially profitable, means of administering CSR payments to stabilize their insurance markets.