Posts Tagged ‘deficit’

Time to Resolve the “Doc Fix”

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Congress’ end of year to-do list inevitably includes the “doc fix” – billions of dollars to avoid deep rate cuts for physicians who treat Medicare’s 48 million patients.  Congressmen and Senators always defer the cuts demanded by a 1997 reimbursement formula — known as the sustainable growth rate (SGR) and which most believe needs to be entirely rewritten.  The deferrals are temporary, and the doc fix has become increasingly difficult to pass through a divided and deficit-wary Congress.  In 2010, Congress put off scheduled cuts five times, with the longest delay lasting one year.

The story is the same heading into 2012.  If lawmakers are unable to agree before returning home for the holidays, 500,000 physicians will face a stiff 27 percent cut beginning January 1.  Although Congressional leaders have vowed to prevent that, they disagree over how to pay for the fix.  There is little doubt some agreement will be reached, but that deal could be delayed until early next year.

The cost of congressional intervention, not surprisingly, has grown: Delaying the cuts — the solution Congress has chosen since 2003 — will cost $21 billion for a one-year delay and $38.6 billion for two years.  Repealing the formula would add approximately $300 billion to the deficit, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

No one imagined that the SGR would cause so much trouble when it was passed as a minor element of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.  Nearly 15 years ago, Medicare physician spending, which accounts for a small share of the program’s overall outlay, was growing slowly.  The law included other restraints that have since been repealed.  Analysts predicted that, at most, the SGR formula would curb physician payments minimally.  “It wasn’t viewed as a big deal at the time,” said Paul Van de Water, an economist specializing in Medicare with the research group Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  “They needed a few more billion dollars in savings (for the Balanced Budget Act), so they just tacked on the SGR arrangement.”

Kaiser Health News wonders why Congress doesn’t just scrap the SGR formula.  “Money is the biggest problem.  It would cost about $300 billion to stop the doc fix cuts over the next decade and Congress can’t agree on where to find that kind of cash.  Some lawmakers, including Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), have proposed using money saved from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to finance a permanent fix.  While the idea has found favor among some Democrats, other Republicans oppose it.  For physicians, the prospect of facing big payment cuts is a source of mounting frustration.  Some say the uncertainty led them to quit the program, while others are threatening to do so.  Still, defections have not been significant to date, according to MedPAC.  Physician groups continue to lobby Congress to enact a permanent payment fix.”

Dr. Florence C. Barnett recently decided to quit seeing Medicare patients.  She said the plan covered approximately 33 percent of what it cost her to see patients — and found herself facing a growing Medicare patient population after other local neurosurgeons left the program in 2010.  “This is the way the government will ration healthcare,” Barnett said.  “The people who can afford it will have healthcare, and the people who are only on government support — they will not be able to find a doctor or they will have a very long wait.  It’s happening now.”

A survey conducted by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission found that among patients looking for a new primary-care physician in 2010, 79 percent experienced no problems finding one.  According to the American Medical Association (AMA), which generally resists limits in reimbursements, nearly 33 percent of primary-care physicians already restrict how many Medicare patients they accept in their practices.

Physicians are once again relying on Congress to put off the impending cut.  It’s a scenario that Glen Stream, M.D. and president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, calls a “Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football thing.”  In other words, physicians have become numb to the whole situation.  This year, that numbness could be risky.  “Doctors are sort of numb from this,” Stream said.  “It’s concerning because I think there’s a very serious chance that this cut could go into place and yet many practicing physicians have heard this years and years in a row and it always seems to get averted at the last minute.  I think that they may not understand the gravity of the situation this time.”

Writing on the MDNews.com website, Maggie Behringer says that “Last year the battle to fund the Medicare deficit — $19 billion for the fiscal year — ended in a one-year measure.  The summer saw a hands-off stance from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services when the administration instructed providers to temporarily cease filing claims until Congress resolved a standstill over stimulus spending and unemployment benefits.  The cut projected for January, 2012, should Congress fail to enact the customary doc-fix, totals to 27.4 percent.  The core conflict for legislators — 19 of whom are physicians, themselves — emerges in the inability of the SGR to adapt in today’s economic environment.  The formula was originally developed to bind spending to the economy’s growth.  Despite initial success, the exponential climb in healthcare costs quickly surpassed the overall market.  The subsequent deficits to fund Medicare were further compounded by the recent depression and ongoing recession.  Even if Congress is able to act in time with a temporary doc-fix over the holidays, the fundamental dilemma will remain a question of funding just as the patient population eligible for Medicare benefits enters a major boom.”

Berwick Laments Washington, D.C., Cynicism About ACA

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

Dr. Donald Berwick, who recently left his job as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) because the Senate refused to confirm his nomination, struck back at his critics who had accused the pediatrician of advocating healthcare rationing.

“The true rationers are those who impede improvement, who stand in the way of change, and who thereby force choices that we can avoid through better care,” Berwick said.  “It boggles my mind that the same people who cry ‘foul’ about rationing an instant later argue to reduce healthcare benefits for the needy, to defund crucial programs of care and prevention, and to shift thousands of dollars of annual costs to people — elders, the poor, the disabled – who are least able to bear them.”

Although Berwick didn’t specifically accuse Senate Republicans, it was clear that he was referring to proposals to drastically slash the nation’s budget deficit by capping federal funding to states for Medicaid.  That proposal could cut billions of dollars that critics have said would lead to cuts in benefits.

During his 16-month tenure at CMS, Berwick studiously avoided using the term “rationing”.  Now, the gloves have come off.  “When the 17 million American children who live in poverty cannot get the immunizations and blood tests they need, that is rationing.  When disabled Americans lack the help to keep them out of institutions and in their homes and living independently, that is rationing.  When tens of thousands of Medicaid beneficiaries are thrown out of coverage, and when millions of seniors are threatened with the withdrawal of preventive care or cannot afford their medications, and when every single one of us lives under the sword of Damocles that, if we get sick, we lose health insurance, that is rationing.”

Berwick also jabbed at those who inaccurately said the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) included so-called “death panels.”  According to Berwick, “If you really want to talk about ‘death panels,’ let’s think about what happens if we cut back programs of needed, life-saving care for Medicaid beneficiaries and other poor people in America.  Maybe a real death panel is a group of people who tell healthcare insurers that is it OK to take insurance away from people because they are sick or are at risk for becoming sick.”

Going even further, Berwick said that the ACA needs more advocates supporting the law. “The law is just a framework,” Berwick said.  “Healthcare in America can improve and it can become sustainable without a tremendous amount of community involvement.”  President Obama has an important role in this, as do healthcare consumers who must push healthcare leaders to rethink the way they work.  “Increasingly, though, that advocacy role is falling to physicians, nurses, and hospital executives.  We need their voices, because they know the system can’t go on the way it is,” he said.

“I think that a lot of the public concern about that law and a lot of the congressional criticism is ill-founded and based on myths,’’ Berwick said.  “I think any chance to air publicly, with conversation and even debate, matters of such concern is healthy.’’

While contemplating what to do next in his career, Berwick said “I’m excited by how much is in motion in healthcare right now.  It’s an incredibly interesting and promising time with many risks, and I want to stay thoroughly engaged in reshaping American healthcare into the high-performance, sustainable system I know it can be.”

Super Committee’s Failure Raises Questions About Healthcare Funding

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Now that the Super Committee has failed to identify $1.2 trillion in cuts from the federal budget, automatic cuts totaling billions for everything from Medicare to biomedical research, start in 2013.  Some healthcare sectors will fare better than others.  The primary health entitlement programs, Medicare and Medicaid, are protected under the law that created the Super Committee.  Automatic cuts will not impact Medicaid, the joint federal-state health program for the poor.  Medicare would be cut by two percent – all from payments to hospitals and other providers.

The bad news is that unless Congress reworks the legislation mandating the automatic cuts, a series of across-the-board reductions will begin in 2013.  The House and Senate appropriations committees must decide how to spread the cuts among various programs.  And some of the larger, better-financed lobbies may be able to influence what is cut and what is kept.

Even though the Medicare cuts are limited to hospitals and other medical providers and would not exceed two percent, they argue that is too much and that they sacrificed plenty in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).  Rich Umbdenstock, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association, said sweeping cuts would hurt Medicare beneficiaries and their families and “also have an impact on the ability of hospitals to provide essential public services to the communities they serve given the impact that Medicare has on the entire healthcare system.”

Officially known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, the Super Committee was unable to meet its deadline to come up with $1.2 trillion of deficit reduction required by the law that created it, much less the $4 trillion that deficit hawks said was necessary to stabilize the finances of the U.S. government, whose debt has topped $15 trillion.  The failure ensures that the fiscal debate between Democrats who want to protect social programs and increase revenue by raising taxes on the wealthy; and Republicans who want smaller government and have pledged to reject tax increases will be a fundamental choice confronting voters in 2012.

“After months of hard work and intense deliberations, we have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline,” Representative Jeb Hensarling,(R-TX), and Senator Patty Murray, (D-WA) said.  The co-chairs thanked committee members, staffers and “the American people for sharing thoughts and ideas and for providing support and good will as we worked to accomplish this difficult task.”

Writing for Politico, David Nather speculates on whether the Super Committee’s failure has harmed efforts to reform Medicare and Medicaid.  It would be easy to conclude that the Super Committee’s failure means the big, expensive health care entitlement programs — Medicare and Medicaid — are untouchable.  It also would be wrong.  The timing was off, coming too close to a presidential election.  The co-chairs weren’t powerful enough.  The work came too soon after a summer debt deal that Democrats hated.  Republicans couldn’t give the kind of concessions on taxes that Democrats needed.  And the alternative to a Super Committee deal on healthcare entitlements — the two percent automatic cuts in healthcare payments and defense funding that will now take place in 2013 — wasn’t harsh enough to force a deal on Medicare and Medicaid. In fact, it might even have been the easier way out.  All of which means Medicare and Medicaid are not off the table forever.”

The Hill’s Sam Baker offers a different perspective. “The Super Committee’s demise is a mixed bag for the American Medical Association and other groups that wanted the 12-member panel to tackle Medicare’s payment formula, known as the sustainable growth rate (SGR).  The AMA — with bipartisan support in Congress — pushed hard for the supercommittee to include in its deficit-cutting package a long-term fix to the SGR.  The formula calls for automatic annual cuts in doctors’ payments, which add up as Congress consistently delays each cut from taking effect.  Aspirations of a long-term SGR patch should be put to rest, healthcare lobbyists said. But they questioned whether the supercommittee push was ever realistic, because an SGR fix would add to the deficit.”

“I never once believed that the Joint Select Committee would be the one to do that,” said Julius Hobson, a senior adviser at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Polsinelli Shughart and a former AMA official.

Will Cuts in Healthcare Save the Federal Budget?

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Healthcare budget and policy experts are waiting for Washington to eventually face the difficult task of finding even more savings to cut the deficit.  They anticipate that health spending — which makes up more than 20 percent of the federal budget — will be targeted.  Some healthcare leaders are already planning to redirect a debate they’re expecting in 2013.  They hope to prevent spending from being shifted from one part of the system to another.  Jack Lewin, chief executive of the American College of Cardiology, said that proposals to address the basic causes of high healthcare costs have mostly been ignored in Washington.

“We talk about them all the time, but there’s nothing that we’re doing in any of these proposals to get that done,” Lewin said.  “What we would like to get on the table that’s not there is a paradigm shift in thinking about how you control costs.”  According to Thomas Scully, a former Medicare administrator under President George W. Bush and now a senior counsel at Alston & Bird, an Atlanta-based law firm, “There’s going to be a Round Two (of cuts), but after the election, because of the economic pressures exerted by the national debt.”

Proposals include reducing payments to providers; asking beneficiaries to pay more for coverage; and raising the Medicare eligibility age.  The healthcare interests that might take another hit in 2013 want to start planning now.  Several key healthcare leaders – the majority of whom have been through other cost-cutting campaigns — say efforts to reduce spending too often transfer costs from the federal budget and individuals, insurers, doctors and hospitals.

These worries have caused “people from dramatically different quarters to start thinking about what to do to get their hands around this” and redirect the conversation, said Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans.  “I’ve been talking to a range of stakeholders about how to work together…to urge policymakers to look at what’s already out there now and build on it.”

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is one element of this debate.  Administration officials and other supporters of the law say it will help drive down costs through initiatives designed to promote primary care, emphasize on preventive medicine, study treatments to evaluate their effectiveness and rate hospitals and other providers on quality.  Other healthcare authorities counter that the law will not strongly impact costs because its reforms are small and will mature incrementally.

Additionally, the law saves money by cutting Medicare payments to hospitals and other providers; it also places some unwelcome standards on health plans.  For example, insurers cannot reject people with pre-existing conditions, must justify rate increases of 10 percent or more, and send rebates to consumers if they don’t spend a minimum of 80 percent of premiums on healthcare.

Writing in the Washington Post, Drew Altman and Larry Levitt – both with the Kaiser Family Foundation — note that “Healthcare costs are driving people into poverty.  Indeed, if the burden of healthcare expenses were not taken into account, then 10 million fewer people would have been classified as poor.  One of the biggest jumps in poverty under the new method is among people with private health insurance.  We tend to think of such people, most of whom get coverage through their jobs, as being better equipped to handle the cost of getting sick.  But even those who are insured are increasingly vulnerable to high healthcare costs, in no small part because, as costs keep rising, employers have shifted more of the burden onto workers.  The share of employees with an insurance deductible of $1,000 or more for single coverage has tripled in the past five years.  The trend is especially strong among small businesses, where half of workers faced a deductible of at least $1,000 in 2011.  For those on the edge of poverty, a big medical bill could send you over it — even if you have insurance.  The effect of healthcare costs is particularly acute for the elderly, with the proportion of seniors living in poverty increasing from nine percent under the official census measure to 16 percent under the alternative measure.  An astounding 49 percent of seniors are living at or below twice the poverty level, a threshold at which people are still considered low-income (up from 35 percent under the official method).

“It’s up to us to get really serious with the agenda so that, when the time comes after the election, we are prepared to offer serious proposals that deal with costs and that do not impair the quality of care,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of the consumer group Families USA.

Capitol Hill Kabuki

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Five Senators want to take the House-passed Medicare plan off the table in bipartisan deficit reduction talks, claiming that the plan effectively dismantles the program.  According to the Senators, the Medicare plan, which passed as part of a budget proposal in April, would jeopardize senior citizens’ current benefits and double out-of-pocket costs.  The five are Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD); Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH); Senator Bill Nelson, (D-FL); Senator Claire McCaskill, (D-MO); and Senator Jon Tester, (D-MT).

In a letter to Vice President Joe Biden, the senators wrote:  “We are aware the administration has rejected this proposal since its passage by the House, and we applaud your efforts to educate the American people about its serious implications.  We encourage you to remain unwavering in opposition to this scheme.  For the good of the nation’s seniors, it must remain off the table.”

According to the letter,“This proposal would never pass Congress on its own, and it does not belong in a larger deal either.  It would be devastating for America’s seniors, who would see their out-of-pocket costs for healthcare double and the benefits they currently enjoy jeopardized.  Under this risky proposal, insurance company bureaucrats would decide what seniors get.”  Biden is leading talks to raise the debt ceiling and negotiating with lawmakers regarding ways to reduce the deficit as a trade-off to raise the debt ceiling.

The deficit and debt limit – whose ceiling the nation is rapidly approaching – are part of the conversation on Capitol Hill.  “I’m willing.  I’m ready. It is time to have the conversation” about deficit cuts and the debt limit, said House Speaker John Boehner

(R-OH), urging President Barack Obama to involve himself personally.  “It is time to play large ball, not small ball.”  House Democratic leader Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said, “I could never support any arrangement that reduced benefits for Medicare.  Absolutely not,” she said,” emphasizing a position she and other Democrats had laid out at their own meeting with the president.   Given Medicare’s size — nearly $500 billion a year — any deal on cutting future deficits is likely to include savings from the program, and may include the benefit cuts that most Democrats oppose.

The Obama administration has come out against the Medicare reforms in the House plan –  authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI).  The Senators insist that this is a non starter, and stressed that they must not be a point of negotiation during the ongoing debt ceiling talks.  Despite the Democrats’ opposition, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) insists that the Medicare reform plan will be “on the table” in negotiations.  “We are going to discuss what ought to be done,” McConnell said.  “I can assure you that to get my vote to raise the debt ceiling, for whatever that is worth…Medicare will be a part of it.”

Some Republicans are backing away from Ryan’s proposal.  For example, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich had egg on his face after suggesting that the plan is “radical… right-wing social engineering,” Gingrich’s explanations proved too little, too late for many conservatives, who continue to hammer the former House speaker for his gaffe.

In an op-ed piece for the San Francisco Sentinel,  Chrystia Freeland writes that “The political theater in the United States this week has been all about the ‘debt ceiling’:  Congress voting not to increase it; President Barack Obama and the House Republicans are meeting to discuss it; and the Treasury warning that failure to raise it will bring economic apocalypse for the United States and the world.  Elites like to accuse ordinary Americans of a lack of political sophistication, but everyone from Main Street to Wall Street is savvy enough to understand that so far, the fighting over the ceiling is pure Kabuki.  As with the budget deal earlier this year, the real negotiating is unlikely to happen until the very last minute.  But everyone also understands that this summer game of brinkmanship matters because it is a proxy war being fought over a very real problem:  the growing national debt and deficit.  At just under 60 percent of gross domestic product, the U.S. national debt is lower than that of France, Germany and Britain.  And the rest of the world still seems delighted to lend the United States money on historically generous terms.”

Medicare Cuts To Total $120 Billion

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will save Medicare $120 billion over the next five years as a result of lower payments to insurers and hospitals.  According to the Obama administration additional steps to cut fraud and abuse are providing promising results.  Medicare Deputy Administrator Jonathan Blum said that the healthcare overhaul is working, resulting in real savings and making program more efficient.  Payment reforms are improving quality, performance and slashing costs.  When President Barak Obama signed the healthcare bill, one major goal was to cut spending on Medicare.

“Just a year after passage, we are seeing savings in Medicare begin to materialize from provisions in the Affordable Care Act,”  said Donald Berwick, M.D., administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  “This work is laying the groundwork for a larger transformation of Medicare and our healthcare delivery system, from simply paying for the volume of services provided to rewarding the quality of care delivered.  We remain committed to achieving a healthcare system that pursues better care, better health, and lower cost through improvement.”

In addition to the projected savings, Medicare is on track to improve the quality of care members receive.  CMS has implemented quality improvements and delivery system efficiencies including providing new preventive benefits, tying payment to quality standards, investing in patient safety and offering new incentives to providers who deliver high-quality, coordinated care.  “These actions will produce savings, create incentives for greater efficiency in care delivery and lay the groundwork for a long-term transformation of our healthcare system as well to make it safer and prevent injuries and unnecessary readmissions to hospitals which not only harm patients but increase overall healthcare costs,” according to a CMS analysis.

Cutting Medicare spending was a priority of the healthcare overhaul that President Barack Obama signed into law in March 2010.  The law is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to reduce deficits by $143 billion, partly through almost $500 billion in cuts and savings from the Medicare program over a 10-year period.  Blum said the savings are in line with expectations by the Obama administration.  “We’re very much consistent with where we thought we would be,” he said.

The savings come at a cost, of course.  Cuts in physician reimbursement represent a 31 percent reduction. If the cuts are adjusted for practice-cost inflation, the American Medical Association says Medicare payment rates to physicians in 2013 will total less than half of what they were in 1991.  “If we can’t fix this, the impact on physicians and physician practices is going to be devastating,” said Alan C. Woodward, M.D., Massachusetts Medical Society president.  “Many practices are barely surviving now.  Coupled with the ongoing problem of soaring professional liability costs, Medicare reimbursement is a critical issue for physician-practice viability,” Dr. Woodward said.  “Failure to solve the Medicare problem will only further endanger older patients’ access to needed healthcare services.”

Writing on the White House Blog,  Deputy Chief of Staff and healthcare czar Nancy-Ann DeParle says that “Many of these reforms were made possible by the Affordable Care Act.  The new law rewards doctors and hospitals for providing high-quality care and offers new tools to help law enforcement and the Medicare program crack down on waste, fraud and abuse.  Other steps like improving care for patients with disabilities and bringing down the cost of durable medical equipment build on initiatives undertaken at CMS that will also reduce costs.  And we recently announced the launch of the Partnership for Patients, a new public-private partnership that will help improve the quality, safety, and affordability of health care for all Americans.  Already, more than 3,000 organizations, including 1,500 hospitals, have signed a pledge to become part of the Partnership for Patients.  This has the potential to save up to $10 billion for Medicare through 2013.”

Medicare Likely Safe From GOP Budget Cutters

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

America’s senior citizens can breathe a sigh of relief.  Even as the majority Republicans in the House of Representatives wield a surgeon’s scalpel to slash spending from the federal budget, they are unlikely to succeed at making significant changes to the extremely popular Medicare program. The Democratic-controlled Senate rejected serious cuts in the proposed legislation, which also included an attempt to block implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  Congressional Democrats and the Obama Administration pointed out that the Republican budget measure’s block on implementation funding would endanger short-term funding for Medicare.

The legislation would create “significant disruptions in services” to Medicare recipients, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote to Senator Max Baucus (D-MT).  The payment delays, Sebelius wrote, would halt the need to undertake a lengthy process to issue new regulations governing Medicare Advantage payment rates since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) put in place its own set of payment rate rules.  The Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) analysis questioned that claim because it believes that the Republican bill will reduce spending by $1.6 billion through the rest of 2011.  Democrats maintain that the CBO’s review of Medicare spending is a separate issue from HHS’s lawful authority to fund the program.

Despite the Senate Democrats’ united front, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) is “ready to take on health programs” as legislators on both sides of the aisle struggle with long-term spending concerns.  Lawmakers continue talks regarding the current year spending measure still under consideration.  A new continuing resolution that would fund government operations until April 8 has emerged.  Though it includes deeper spending cuts, it is free of controversial riders such as language to restrict ACA implementation funds.  Meanwhile, the CBO issued a report that legislation designed to further the defunding goal would add $5.7 billion to the deficit.

Democratic leaders insisted that some form of compromise by the House GOP members is now needed. “We’re looking for some give on the Republican side,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY).  Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), he said, “needs something to bring his freshmen into the real world.”  Boehner, referencing the Democrats and the White House, said “I hope the talks are going to continue, but we are not going to get very far if they don’t get serious about doing what the American people expect of us.  “This is not going to be easy.  Our goal, as I’ve said many times, is to cut spending and keep the government open.”

200 Economists Come Out in Favor of ObamaCare

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Approximately 200 healthcare economists are urging Congress to reject a premium support model for Medicare and instead “support vigorous implementation” of last year’s health reform law.  The economists – who are primarily academics – sent a letter to Congressional leadership saying there are two general strategies to Medicare spending and the “right” approach can be found in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). “It supports research on identifying those procedures that work best,” according to the letter.  “It emphasizes payment reforms and new ways of organizing delivery of care to slow spending growth while improving care,” it said, adding that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the Affordable Care Act will decelerate annual growth of per-person Medicare spending over the next 10 years below the rate of overall economic growth.

House Republicans recently released their fiscal year 2012 budget, which seeks to convert Medicare to a premium-support system.  Patients would be given a list of health plans from which to choose, and Medicare would subsidize the premiums.  In their letter to congressional leaders, the healthcare economists said the term “premium support” mislabels a voucher program, which they say will end up forcing consumers to pay more.  Citing CBO statistics, the economists expressed concern that current proposals link voucher payments to growth in the Consumer Price Index adjusted for population growth.  “Because medical care costs are rising much more rapidly than the CPI, this guarantees that the value of the proposed Medicare vouchers would erode over time,” according to the CBO.

Some believe that forcing people to pay more out-of-pocket expenses will make them better healthcare consumers.  Writing in The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn says that “The solution, as this argument goes, is to redesign insurance so that it forces people to pay more out-of-pocket expenses.  And, within reason, it’s not a bad idea.  Most economists, even those on the left, would agree that excessive coverage leads to higher health care spending.  But redesigning insurance in a way that actually lowers spending and, by the way, promotes good health, is a lot more complicated than merely giving people “more skin in the game,” as conservatives like to put it.  A new study by researchers affiliated with the Rand Corporation suggests why.

“The study, published in the American Journal of Managed Care, compares trends in medical spending by two groups of people — one group with traditional insurance and one with newly purchased high-deductible coverage,” Cohn notes.  “It appears to be the largest study of its kind, and the three authors did their best to adjust for factors like age, occupation and underlying medical conditions.  The result? People with high-deductible plans spent substantially less on their medical care.  That’s good news.  Or is it?  Giving people more skin in the game has distributional consequences.  It shifts the burden of medical expenses onto those people with the most serious medical problems, which is, arguably, what insurance is designed to prevent.  In addition, discriminating medical consumers are not always intelligent medical consumers.  People may decide to skimp on useful medical care rather than the superfluous kind.”

According to White House press secretary Jay Carney, healthcare savings are necessary to control the deficit. Carney said that the president would build on the work of his debt commission, whose recommendations he initially refrained from endorsing.  Carney also praised a small group of senators from both parties, known as the “Gang of Six”, which is establishing a framework where a sharply divided Congress can compromise on deficits.  “The president understands very well that healthcare spending is a major driver of our deficit and debt problem,” Carney said.  “He believes we can achieve those savings in ways that protect the people that these programs are supposed to, and were designed to, support and help.”

Republicans Vow to Take on Healthcare Entitlement Programs

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

With the power shift in the House of Representatives, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are being targeted in proposed budget cuts designed to bring down the deficit. “It will likely be the first time you see a House have a prescription for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said at the Federation of American Hospitals’ annual public policy conference and business exposition in Washington.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a Republican, said that members of Mississippi’s Medicaid program saw its enrollment drop approximately 23 percent to 580,000 beneficiaries from 750,000 after the state started requiring beneficiaries to establish their eligibility in person.  Barbour began this practice in his first year as governor in 2004.  Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, slammed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), noting that its expansion of Medicaid will “bankrupt” the states, which already have strained budgets.  Hatch also cited Congressional Budget Office figures that say the ACA’s Medicaid expansion will cost taxpayers $435 billion over the next decade.

President Barack Obama said his proposed 2012 budget was a “down payment,” on cutting the federal budget deficit, and said that more work is needed to address “long term challenges”. Cantor said that on “individual items” there were “probably some areas of agreement” between the President and Republicans.  “But we can’t keep taking the savings and going to spend it,” he said.  “The object here is to cut.”  According to Cantor, the President’s plan “just misses the mark of living up to the expectations” Obama laid out in his State of the Union speech in January.  Asked if Cantor expected adjustments to Social Security and Medicare, Cantor said he was “hopeful that we can get some cooperation from [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D-NV] and the President, because these are programs that touch the lives of every American and we don’t want, nor can we, make these changes by ourselves.”

Writing on the Huffington Post, Richard Eskow took an alarmist tone, saying that “entitlement reform” is a euphemism for allowing the elderly to die if they become ill. “’The President’s budget punts on entitlement reform,’ reads a statement by House Republicans.  ‘Our budget will lead where the President has failed, and it will include real entitlement reforms.’  ‘You have to do entitlement reforms if you are serious about this budget,’ according to Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI).”  Eskow counters “Reality check: Nobody’s proposing ‘entitlement reform.’ That term is a cloaking device for some very ugly intentions.  It’s a meaningless manufactured phrase cooked up by some highly-paid consultant, and it diminishes the sum total of human understanding every time it’s used.  The phrase is a euphemism for deep cuts to programs that are vital and even life-saving for millions of elderly and poor people, but it’s politically unpalatable to say that.  So it became necessary to come up with yet another cognition-killing term designed to numb us from the human toll of our political actions.  ‘Entitlement reform’ is the new ‘collateral damage.’”

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein is more diplomatic in his assessment of the possibility of entitlement reform. “We’ll see.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama has his name on a broader deficit-reduction bill at this time next year.  If he takes the deficit away from Republicans before 2012, his reelection campaign becomes considerably easier.  And on a less cynical level, his administration is stocked with deficit hawks — the same folks who actually balanced the budget under Bill Clinton.  And similarly, Republicans want to deliver on the deficit-reduction promises they’ve made to their base.  In theory, everyone’s incentives and ideologies are pointing in the same direction.  That’s a good sign for progress.”

Rick Mattoon: Is the Recession Over?

Monday, March 8th, 2010

 The Fed says the recession is over.  Economic indicators show that the recession is over.  This is the opinion of Rick Mattoon, a senior economist and advisor in the economic research department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and a lecturer at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.  Rick’s primary research focuses on issues facing the Midwest regional economy.

In a recent interview for the Alter Inspire Podcasts, Mattoon warned that most people probably don’t feel like the nation is coming out of a recession because there are few signs of job creation or easier access to credit.  One of the major concerns economists have is that this will be a double-dip “W-shaped” recession because once the bump from the $787 billion stimulus ends, there will be scant pent-up consumer demand for products and services to take the place of government spending.

One positive sign is an uptick in hiring by temporary employment agencies, which usually is considered to be a good harbinger of what future demand will be.  Another interesting theory about this particular recession in terms of jobs is the idea that companies adjusted their employee levels much more aggressively at the beginning of this cycle.  As a result, they are operating at extremely lean levels and so may hire earlier rather than later.

One problem is that there is a skills mismatch in the economy.  Many people who have lost their jobs don’t possess the right skills to find employment in growth industries such as clean energy or healthcare.  The challenge is training these individuals to bring their skills up to par.

 
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